Yesterday the folks at Ta'anit Tzedek / Jewish Fast for Gaza held a conference call with Irish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire and former Israeli pilot Yonatan Shapira, both of whom have travelled on boats to Gaza. (Here's another brief bio of both Maguire and Shapira.)
Shapira authored "The Pilot's Letter," signed by Israeli pilots who are refuseniks (refusing to fly missions over the Occupied Territories); he's a co-founder of Combatants for Peace. Maguire was the aunt of three children who died when they were hit by a getaway car, which sparked marches throughout Northern Ireland; she co-founded The Peace People, and is involved with the Nobel Women's Initiative which recently took a group to the Middle East.
Ta'anit Tzedek convened the conference call with Judge Goldstone last year, which I found really valuable, so I wanted to sit in on this call, too! Because of the scheduling, I wasn't able to be present during the call with Maguire and Shapira, but the recording of that call is now online at the Ta'anit Tzedek website, so I listened to much of it during Drew's nap this morning.
"In 1976, in the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, my sister's three children were all killed," Maguire recalls, "and a young IRA man was also killed... and so myself and two others made a call for peace. Violence was not going to solve our problems. There had to be another way," Maguire says. "We had a deep ethnic political conflict, but it was not going to be solved through militarism and paramilitarism; we had to sit down to dialogue with each other."
Rabbi Brian Walt asked, "How did you then broaden your work... to working for peace in the Middle East?" Maguire is a member of the International Peace Council, which brings together people from different religious backgrounds, and they were invited to go to Israel about ten years ago. The invitation came from Rabbis for Human Rights and those against the demolitions of Palestinian homes. That was her first trip to the Middle East. "I was deeply moved by the suffering of the people on both sides," she says, and because of her background with Ireland/Northern Ireland, she knew that militarism would not be the solution. "I do believe that peace is possible," she says.
More recently, Maguire has become involved with Gaza. "I was invited by the Free Gaza movement to join one of the boats going in to Gaza, and I went in 2008, and we actually got into Gaza on that occasion," Maguire explains. "I've tried to go back other times and was unsuccessful. But what I saw in Gaza in 2008 -- and it was a mixed delegation, internationals from all over and from Israel as well -- the suffering of the people on the ground was really very terrible... It really is collective punishment of 1.5 million people, half of whom are under the age of eighteen." She continues:
There's a passion among the people of Gaza for peace; they want peace because they've suffered so much. It reminded me of Northern Ireland. We believed in all-inclusive dialogue.We talked to everybody. If you don't talk to the people with whom you don't agree, you're not going to solve the problem... Tragically, the week after we left, Israel bombed Gaza and the Cast Lead Operation started, which set back the hopes that we had that there would be peace between Fatah, Hamas, the Palestinians would be able to have dialogue with the Israelis.
Yonatan Shapira spoke next, expressing his adiration for Maguire and his chagrin that the Israeli Supreme Court portrays Maguire as someone with bad intentions. He wishes, he says, that he could make her words heard all over the country "These simple words of yours could heal, could lift so many lost people, so many blind people."
I was a Black Hawk pilot, a rescue pilot in the Air Force, and served for many years. During this time I volunteered with victims of suicide attacks, mostly new immigrants, people who were poor with less family support in the country, and I got to know very well the part of the Israeli suffering through my military service as a rescue pilot bringing children and soldiers and people to hospital after they were injured, and later as a volunteer in this organization meeting the families and children of the survivors, working with them and trying to bring them back to the society to try to overcome their traumas. At some point along this process I started to realize that there is a cycle of violence and that I am part of this cycle.
For years, he says, he did not know the narrative of the other side. "The first time I knew the word 'naqba,' the disaster of what happened in '48 for the Palestinians, was when I was thirty... when you realize that you were blind to such a huge part of the history and the present, that there is a circle of violence and you are part of it, it's a strong emotional step to overcome. At that point you can decide whether to ignore it, suppress it, to fight anyone who brings these issues up -- or, try to learn more and take responsibility and try to change the situation. That's what happened to me and to many of my friends." That's when he decided to write the letter for Air Force pilots who felt, as he did, that these attacks were immoral.
"It's not enough to refuse and to say what you're not willing to be part of; it's also important to reach out to the other side which you were fighting against... to find Palestinians who are also rejecting violence, and refusing to be part of the cycle of violence."
Today Shapira is involved with the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement, which he describes as a nonviolent coalition of organizations in Palestine and worldwide. "It's not a political solution... it's based totally on human rights and on recognizing the right of Palestinians for equality," he says. "We believe that we have to stop hoping that the Israeli government will bring us a solution. We don't wait anymore for Lieberman, Bibi, Barak and other people to bring a solution. We are calling the international community -- we are calling Jews, we are caling governments around the world -- to understand that the situation is disastrous and there's no time to wait for a peace process that is being used to delay and to build more settlements all the time."
Rabbi Brant Rosen asked Shapira to talk about the transition of moving from being an Israeli pilot, being a leader, into being a solidarity activist with Palestinians. "This was as strong a step as deciding to refuse," Shapira says. In the past he had always felt that he was leading something, that it was important to be a leader. "It takes time to uproot the militaristic mindset, because that's where you grew up and that's the way you used to think," he says. "But at a certain point I understood that the struggle is the Palestinian struggle from liberation; which is of course also going to liberate Israelis from being the oppressor, but the struggle overall is a struggle for liberating millions of people from oppression of many decades. As an Israeli, as a Jew, as an ex-pilot and officer, to understand that you are not any more a leader -- now you are being led by the non-violent call of 99% of Palestinians -- for me, this was a very profound moment."
Then the call moved to talking about Shapira and Maguire's experiences aboard ship. Maguire was on a boat which was connected with the Mavi Marmara, though her boat was not attacked. Maguire describes the experience of being on a boat which was boarded by the IDF, being taken to Ashdod, and spending a week in military prison before being deported. Then she was on the Rachel Corrie, which was part of the flotilla, which sailed from Ireland carrying cement and paper. (Here's a Guardian article about that.)
The Rachel Corrie was delayed, so it was a few days behind the main flotilla. "We heard what happened on the Mavi Marmara; we were absolutely shocked, but decided that as a group with deep respect for those who had been killed on the Mavi Marmara boat, we would continue on to Gaza," Maguire says. "Unfortunately we were boarded again, in international waters, by the Israeli navy, taken to Ashdod and then to the detention center, and two days later we were repatriated back to our own country."
Subsequently there has been a UN fact-finding mission about what happened with the flotilla. "We welcome what the UN fact-finding mission has come out with in its report; it said there were serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law... these are serious charges, and it's important that the UN take serious action," Maguire says. That fact-finding mission included interviews with more than 100 witnesses in Geneva, London, Istanbul and Amman, but they did not speak with anyone within Israel, because Israel refused to cooperate with the investigation. (This is distressingly reminiscent, in my mind, of Israel's decision not to cooperate with the Goldstone commission. In any event: on this front, I highly recommend Rabbi Brant Rosen's Mavi Marmara Post Mortems post.)
Maguire also spoke about the Nobel Women's Peace Initiative and their recent trip to Israel and Gaza. (Relatedly, I read a terrific essay about that by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement, who went on that trip and for whom this was quite a challenging and eye-opening experience.) Unfortunately, Maguire explains, she was not allowed in to Israel on that peace mission; she was deported because of her previous involvement with the Gaza flotilla. But she argued passionately for the importance of working with both Israeli and Palestinian women toward the hope of creating peace.
The whole recording is very worth listening to. Thanks, Ta'anit Tzedek, for sponsoring this call and for making the recording available. For me as someone who loves Israel deeply, this is difficult to hear, but I applaud Maguire and Shapira for their work and their courage, and I applaud the rabbis behind Ta'anit Tzedek for highlighting these voices for justice and for peace.